Archive for May 2015
I remember Mom had gathered us all into the family car. We were going for a drive; I didn’t know where or why. I do recall it had something to do with my father, so it was probably during the time he was in the hospital, after the stroke. We drove — Mom did, anyway — into the country for what seemed a long time until we came to a farmhouse; a ramshackle affair of unpainted and weathered grey wood.
An old man answered Mom’s knock. I say, ‘old man’ but I’m not entirely sure he was. I was very young at the time so every adult qualified as ‘old’. The old man — I think his name was Ralph — was related to my father in some way, a cousin or uncle or something. He invited us in and we stepped through the doorway into the house, uncertain as to what we’d find.
The interior of the house was cluttered and smelled of wood smoke and cooking. Ralph directed Mom to a chair while my brothers and I stood and waited, unsure if we were to sit or stand After a few moments, we were directed to the back of the house and out into the yard. I say, ‘the yard’, but it was more — much more — than that; several acres more. It had once been a ‘working farm’, but no more. All that remained was the land; a few trees scattered here and there, and some ways off, a barn that looked to be in worse shape than the house.
I was tempted to explore the barn but it was too far from the house and, anyway, Ralph hadn’t mentioned it. I redirected my attention to other, closer places to explore. It was then I noticed, a few yards from the house, what appeared to be a rusted pipe sticking out of the ground. I was intrigued
The pipe turned out to be a pump and I knew, if there was a pump, then somewhere beneath my feet, it was connected to a well. I had read about pumps and wells in some of the books at home; ;the family visits the farm’ kind of books. I’d never seen one in ‘real life’ and never had occasion to use one. If I wanted a drink of water at home, I went into the kitchen, turned the tap and Bingo! Water. I couldn’t imagine coming all the way out to the middle of the yard for a drink of water.
I wondered if the pump still worked, if there was still water in the huge lake I imagined lay somewhere beneath my feet. Tentatively, I reached out and touched the pump handle. It was warm to the touch.
For some reason — I never really understood why — I wanted to see if I could pull water up from the well. I pushed down on the pump handle, It didn’t move. A layer of rust had frozen the handle in place. But I was determined to draw water from the well. I gathered all my weight — all 60 or 70 pounds of it — and hurled it onto the pump handle. My effort was rewarded by an ear-splitting scream as the mechanism broke free of the rust and pump handle descended. The mechanism wasn’t spring-loaded. I had to pull the handle up. Free of the rust, the handle mechanism moved more easily. I raised the handle to about shoulder level and pushed down. The handle moved easily in my hand now but there was no water. I continued pushing the handle down, pulling it up; determined to bring water, if there was any, up from the well.
“Stephen!” Mom called.
I stopped pumping, startled by the sound of Mom’s voice.
“What are you doing?” She asked. Her tone of voice told me whatever it was, I definitely shouldn’t be doing it
“It’s all right, Mary,” Ralph said as he sauntered up behind Mom, hands shoved into the pockets of his overalls, to stand next to me. “The boy can’t hurt that old pump.” He stood there, looking down at me with a condescending half-smile on his face; the kind of look you give someone you’re watching trying to perform an unfamiliar task you know they should be able to perform. “We haven’t used that pump in, oh, must be going on five years now,” he said. Ralph turned to look out at the land beyond the pump. “Been at least that long since we sold off the last of the milk cows,” he added with a note of sadness in his voice, then turned back to me. “Gonna take a lot of pumping to bring the water up,” he said, cocking an eyebrow at me by way of challenge
I looked up at Ralph, then turned to Mom The look on my face must have been enough to waylay any argument. She glanced at Ralph, then gave me her ‘I surrender” smile, knowing there was no point in arguing, and shrugged.
Encouraged, I attacked the pump handle with renewed energy. It took a while — maybe ten minutes of steady pumping — with Mom and Ralph looking on, but finally water spewed from the pump spigot. I abandoned the pump handle and thrust my hands into the flow. The water was cold and clear. I splashed water onto my face and smiled up at Ralph. “It’s good!” I said.
“‘Course, it’s good,” Ralph replied, “Mother Nature don’t use no chemicals.” There was pride in his voice as he watched me slurp water from my cupped hands.
Mom stepped closer and put an arm around my shoulders. “Well, I guess it’s time we headed back.” she said, her tone saying there was no more reason to stay. The three of us — Mom, me and Ralph — turned from the pump and started toward the house, Mom calling my brothers as we went.
“Boy would’ve made a helluva farmer,” Ralph said to no one in particular.
Back at the car well piled into the back seat and, after Mom and Ralph shared a few parting words, we left for home. I turned to look out the rear window and saw Ralph wave once from the yard, then turn and walk back to the house, hands shoved in the pockets of his overalls.
I went back some years later, along a new stretch of four-lane, to where Ralph’s farmhouse once stood. It’s gone now, of course, like all the small, family farms; the land sold off to developers for highway rights-of-way, housing developments and shopping malls. It’s a shame, really, but I guess that’s progress. Still, I would’ve liked to try that pump one last time.